Kakao Talk Odds & Ends: Hitting a mid-core, free-to-play home run

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Having skipped much of the console generation, Korea’s gaming culture has always been known for its love of RPGs and MMOs. With games like Lineage, Aion, and League of Legends dominating the scene, it comes as no surprise that surveys have shown even mobile gamers in Korea rank RPG/Adventure games as their favorite.

That might be why Blade, the new action- RPG from 4:33, has been dominating the charts at #1 since its release at the end of April. The game has held tight to that #1 slot for just over a month, making money hand over fist and showing no signs of slowing. But designing successful mid-core games for mobile has been a nagging frustration for the industry over the past year, so it begs the question: what makes for a good mobile RPG?

Korean developers may just have the answer (at least for their respective market). Today we’ll be looking at two games: Blade a huge success, and Mu: The Genesis, a game that barely made it, to figure out what makes a mid-core hit. Before we do that, however, let’s take a look at some key facts about player behavior.

Player Behavior in Korea

Designing for a mid-core hit arguably takes a bit more fine-tuning than puzzlers, which seem to dominate the landscape at the moment. So here are some key points from one particular inMobi survey, I want to lay down before we move on:

  • Korean gamers report preferring easy game play than they do challenging game play
  • Korean gamers are more likely to pay to make a level easier than to unlock something new
  • Korean gamers typically play while waiting for something or while at home, with an average session between 15 and 20 minutes.

Keep these points in mind as we move forward.

Overview of Games:

Blade
Release April 20, 2014
Last Update May 28, 2014
Developer 4:33
Google Play Installs 1,000,000 – 5,000,000
Top Grossing Rank (Google Play) #1

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Mu: The Genesis
Release December 19, 2013
Last Update April 23, 2014
Developer Webzen
Google Play Installs 500,000 – 1,000,000
Top Grossing Rank (Google Play) #21

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Gameplay Analysis

Blade

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Graphically, Blade is probably one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen on the mobile platform. Powered by the Unreal engine, everything from the cut-scenes to the in-game graphics are at the cutting edge for mobile. This does have one downside: the battery drain is also unprecedented.The core game involves a campaign mode where players slash their way through short stages, each culminating in a boss fight (sometimes multiple boss fights). There are also two PVP modes to challenge other users, and an arena mode where players have to fight wave after wave of enemies as they compete for the best clear times.

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Players fight their way through stages by chaining together skill combos to destroy skeleton minions in Blade.

The average session is roughly two minutes for the campaign and PVP modes, right on par with the amount of time it takes to get from one station to the next on subway.

Retention is encouraged in multiple ways. Gear and loot is dropped at the end of each stage, which can be sold for gold, or combined with other weapons using the upgrade system to make improvements to your character. There is a bit of randomization thrown into the loot drops as players have to choose one of three chests at the end to see what they get (usually either a small amount of gold, a weapon, or some armor).

If a player is unhappy with the selection they end up with, for the price of a few jewels they can make another choice. This kind of randomization is fantastic for monetization, and ultimately doesn’t have to cost the player anything.

The charts in the PVP and arena modes keep the retention game high as players want to return to either keep their place or beat the current high scores. Additionally, as is typical for mobile games anymore, there is a daily log in bonus with items, gold, and jewels, to encourage daily play.

Lastly, the UI design is incredibly well-done for a Korean RPG game, which historically have obtuse, needlessly complex UI. Blade succeeds in using its tutorials to guide you through enough of the relatively simple UI to figure it out.

All of these design features fall into line with the general preferences of Korean gamers. Given the short sessions, players can actually make significant advancements in a 20 minute play session and the game is designed balanced enough that it doesn’t feel too difficult.

 Mu: The Genesis

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Like Blade, Mu is a beautiful game graphics wise. In the core game, players also run through short stages, clearing them of enemies and collecting loot along the way. Only here, they have minions that join them for support.

Unlike Blade, skills must be managed more carefully due to the introduction of mana. There is a handy “auto” function that can be set so that characters run through the dungeon and auto-attack on their own while the player only has to interact by hitting the skill buttons.

There are multiple game modes that include the main campaign, a mission mode, a dungeon mode, and ranked play.

뮤-GameplayRetention is encouraged with loot drops of items that can be used to optimize either the main character or helper minions, and with the ranking system that encourages repeated play so that players can compete for the top position. Like Blade, there are also daily deals offered and log-in bonuses.

Where Mu mostly fails is in simplicity. The title is an extension of the popular MMO, and it retains too many of those MMO elements. Even though the auto function helps make game play simpler, the mana management system is almost too complex and difficult.

The UI is needlessly complicated, and the upgrade system is more difficult to understand. Upgrading helper minions is almost as complex as upgrading the main character, which makes the whole game more time consuming. While spell points are easy enough to come by, the in game currency is not and it feels much more like a traditional grinder. This might attract a certain audience, but it doesn’t appeal to the average player.

Monetization

Blade

As mentioned before, one of the most important parts of designing for monetization in Korea is ease of play. Blade has done a great job at monetizing with this in mind. Gems are the main currency, and though they can be earned in-game, they are easily burnable in lives, upgrades, and item purchases.

블레이드-Monetization-PromptThere are purchasable boosts for each level that include earning increased experience, making your skills hit harder, and increasing your HP. Gems can also be used to bring a character back to life after dying (only  once per level).

Players are prompted if they use their one life and still fail and are brought to the item cube screen and encouraged to buy better items. The item cubes, which can be purchased with gems, give players premium accessories, armor, and weapons. Premium weapon cubes, for example, cost 40 gems, with the lowest purchasable amount of gems being 30.

My only criticism being that they are earned in a lottery-type system, so you can never be sure which weapon, accessory, or armor you will get. While this is good for monetization, it’s frustrating as a player.

Mu: The Genesis

As with the gameplay, Mu suffers from the same problems with monetization: it is more complex. There are less obvious monetization prompts, and none at the beginning of each level, which would be the most ideal. Like Blade, items are purchased in a lottery system, and they are more expensive, with the lowest possible amount you can buy at 5,500 won (~$5 USD)

Conclusions

Both of these games are excellent in this writer’s opinion, and both of them push the envelope of what is possible on the mobile platform. Blade improves on what Mu: The Genesis tried to do, but failed at. Mu was simply too complex and tried to do too much to appeal to a general audience. It feels like something that passionate developers made without much consideration for monetization, and lacks the essential pushes that players need to make a game financially successful. The retention game just doesn’t feel as well developed or thought out for a wider audience, making it feel less accessible.

Blade, on the other hand, is a perfect balance of RPG elements and simple game play. The levels are short and relatively easy, while still providing enough of a challenge to push players to pay for boosts. Players can earn enough free gems and gold that they don’t have to make any purchases, but the notifications and prompts are there to help subtly push them.

Tell us what you think

Have you played any great mid-core games? What elements do you think make the best mid-core games?

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